Law & Courts

Mideast-Themed Schools Raise Curricular, Church-State Issues

By Andrew Trotter — August 31, 2007 8 min read
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A new public school with a focus on Arabic language and culture is set to open in New York City this week, after being assailed for months by opponents who claim it will be a taxpayer-funded Islamic school sympathetic to extremist political views.

In Broward County, Fla., meanwhile, a new charter school designed around the teaching of Hebrew language and culture is contending with charges that it will unavoidably teach religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

Both schools declare that their intentions are mainstream—and completely legal—and that they will be under the supervision of their local school districts.

But the schools have attracted fierce controversy, amplified in the news media and the blogosphere, and the decibel level has tended to drown out the underlying discussion of the value and risks of language-oriented and culturally themed public schools.

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Charles C. Haynes, a national expert on religion in schools, suggested that at least some critics of the two schools are mischaracterizing them to inflame passions.

“This is more political than constitutional,” he said of the disputes. “Critics of both schools seem to be using the First Amendment to fight their political battle.”

Mr. Haynes and other experts on church-state questions said the schools appear on paper to be constitutional, although the way they operate in practice will be crucial to determining whether they run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of a government establishment of religion.

Apart from church-state questions, some educators are worried that the furor will damage the reputation of dual-language programs, which aim to teach both English and another language to a blend of students who are native speakers of English and those whose first language is not English.

Such programs are proven ways to teach foreign languages, said Luis O. Reyes, the coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Excellence for English-Language Learners, based in New York City, and a former member of the city’s board of education. He said he feared the New York and Broward County disputes risked making it harder to operate such programs in public schools.

The controversies reflect a “divide ... between those who continue to think that schools’ role is to assimilate into Anglo conformity of what it is to be an American—that’s a minority view,” he argued. “The majority sees diversity as part of American reality and one of its strengths.”

Attacks Take Toll

In New York City, the Khalil Gibran International Academy—named for the Christian Lebanese-born poet—was scheduled to open Sept. 4 without its original principal, Debbie Almontaser, who resigned early in August after repeated attacks by the school’s opponents. They charged—unfairly, other observers say—that she was sympathetic to Islamic radicals. The school also has been moved from its original location, following opposition from parents at the facility it was to share.

Ms. Almontaser’s replacement, Danielle Salzberg, is not Muslim and does not speak Arabic.

But opponents have not been placated by Ms. Almontaser’s departure. “She’s gone, but her imprint is clearly there,” said David Yerushalmi, a lawyer for the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, which represents many opponents of the school, who describe it using the Arabic word for school.

The academy—one of 40 new schools opening this fall in New York City—will enroll 60 students in 6th grade this year, said Danielle Jefferis, the school’s coordinator. A majority of the students identify themselves as non-Arabic-speakers, she said. The school intends to add a grade every year, up to 12th grade.

Ms. Jefferis said the school will use the same social studies curriculum and math program as other district schools, in addition to offering Arabic language and activities on international and multicultural themes.

Melody L. Meyer, a spokeswoman for the 1.1 million-student New York City school district, called the academy “a non-politically-motivated public school that teaches an academic college-prep curriculum and Arabic language.”

Ms. Meyer said the academy will be supervised by a community superintendent of schools and “a team of advisers.”

“The instant that a teacher or principal decides to promote political ideology over academic content, we’ll see that immediately,” she said. “There has been a lot of speculation going on and misinformation on the basis of that speculation.”

Mr. Haynes agreed: “The school in New York in no way resembles an Islamic school. It’s an odd and dangerous argument to say that studying Arabic in and of itself is somehow going to promote terrorism, which is what the Stop the Madrassa crowd seems to be saying.”

Incubator for Radicals?

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, a spokesman for the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, argued that the school district cannot provide enough oversight to ensure that the school does not proselytize students with Islam.

“Everything should be checked or double-checked, monitoring the curriculum all the time—this will be ad infinitum,” he said.

On its Web site, the group cites an April 27 column in the New York Sun newspaper, titled “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,” in which its author, Daniel Pipes, wrote that “Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.”

Mr. Pipes, a scholar and former U.S. diplomat who directs the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Philadelphia that fights what it calls radical Islam, predicted that the creation of the school “will generate serious problems.”

The Stop the Madrassa group has been joined by the Thomas More Law Center, a legal-advocacy organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich., which sent out an e-mail blast last week with the title: “New York City’s Khalil Gibran International Academy an Incubator for Islamist Radicalization.”

An Arabic-themed school poses special problems, Mr. Wiesenfeld argued, saying that “there is a triumphalist strain in Islam.” He also maintained that supporters of the school have a practice of speaking sympathetically about radical Islam while abjuring such talk in statements to the public.

Still, he said, his group is in the process of reshaping its message. “None of us want to be in a position where we could be called racist,” he said. “It’s not an anti-Muslim thing, but we’re also against the balkanization of American education.”

Some of his points echoed those made in May by Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, in in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News against the Khalil Gibran school.

“In my view, there should be no public schools where all instruction is based on only one non-English culture and language,” she wrote. “These schools naturally tend to celebrate the culture on which the entire school is focused.”

“Above all, let us not create public schools that separate our student into ethnic and cultural enclaves,” she added.

School Called a First

Florida’s Ben Gamla Charter School, which opened Aug. 20, bills itself as “America’s first English-Hebrew charter school.” Named for a 1st-century rabbi credited with starting public education in ancient Judea, it will teach one period of Hebrew language daily plus an added academic class in a mix of Hebrew and English, according to the school’s charter agreement.

The school, which is led by a rabbi, Adam Siegel, enrolls about 400 students in kindergarten through grade 8.

For the time being, at the request of the Broward County school board, the Hollywood, Fla., school has temporarily suspended Hebrew instruction, until a Hebrew-speaking religion professor can review its curriculum for its handling of religious content.

Eric Rassbach, a lawyer who represents the school, says church-state objections to teaching Hebrew in a public school are not the real reason behind the opposition.

“Basically, there’s a competition of sorts” between Ben Gamla and local private Hebrew schools that serve the large Jewish population in and around Broward County, he maintained.

“Our opponents have admitted that their reason for opposing the school is economic; they’re hanging their hopes on the constitutional argument … to make sure you could never have such a school, that you could never teach Hebrew nonreligiously, which I think on the face of it is a ridiculous argument,” he said.

“Ben Gamla is not going to be teaching religion,” said Mr. Rassbach, who works for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based legal-advocacy group.

Oversight a Concern

Ivan Reich, whose children attend the David Posnack Hebrew Day School, in Plantation, Fla., disputed Mr. Rassbach’s characterization of the opponents’ motives: “We are opposed to [the charter school] because we have a fundamental constitutional issue, the separation of church and state.”

Broward school board member Eleanor Sobel, who voted to approve the Ben Gamla school’s charter but has become a critic, said the Hebrew program will require too much costly oversight: “You need someone who understands Hebrew,” which the district lacked until its temporarily hired the professor who will review the curriculum.

She also faulted the school for failing to produce a curriculum that stays clear of religion in the teaching of Hebrew.

Keith M. Bromery, a spokesman for the 262,000-student Broward County schools, said the Ben Gamla school was granted a charter because it met the requirements. He said the district will actively monitor it.

The school was founded by Peter Deutsch, a former Democratic congressman who represented Broward County. According to a recent interview with Mr. Deutsch by The New York Times, he plans to start similar Hebrew public charter schools in major cities around the country.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Mideast-Themed Schools Raise Curricular, Church-State Issues


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